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Past Cup Champs Looking for the Win in Second Trip to Daytona

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COMMENTARY | The past six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions - Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon - all go into this Saturday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway looking for a win for different reasons: to cement the season, to salvage the season, and to prove he still belongs among them. Four of those six drivers have combined for 14 wins at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, and they'll be among the favorites to reach victory lane in their second trip to Daytona this season.

To cement the season - Matt Kenseth, with four wins this season, and Jimmie Johnson, with three wins this season, are the leading contenders for the number one spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Another win by Kenseth would make things difficult for Johnson, who would need to grab two wins just to go into the Chase tied for the top spot. Their Daytona records are remarkably similar: Kenseth has 13 top 10 finishes, five DNFs and an average finish of 17.0 in 27 races, while Johnson has 10 top 10s, five DNFs and an average finish of 18.2 in 23 races. Neither driver has won the July race at Daytona.

To salvage the season - Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, with six and four wins respectively at Daytona, are in precarious positions regarding the Chase: Stewart, 16th in points, is currently the second Wild Card driver thanks to his win at Dover, while Gordon, 12th in points with no wins, is on the outside looking in - much like he was last season before sneaking into the Chase. Gordon has 19 top 10 finishes in 41 starts at Daytona, with an average finish of 16.1; Stewart has 13 top 10s in 29 races, with an average finish of 17.0. A win by Gordon knocks Stewart back out of the Wild Card spot, but Stewart has an edge - he's won the July race four out of the last eight seasons.

To prove he still belongs - Brad Keselowski, the reigning Sprint Cup champ, finished 25th in points just two seasons prior to his championship run; with no wins and sitting 13th in points, there is a chance that he'll become just the second reigning champ to not make the Chase the following season - the last one being Stewart in 2006. Keselowski has just two top 10 finishes in eight races at Daytona, with an average finish of 22.2 - the worst of the current crop of champs.

Another driver trying to prove himself is Kurt Busch, who is, like Keselowski, winless at Daytona. The Furniture Row Racing driver has been close to winning numerous times this season - he's led laps in seven of the last nine races and won two stages of the Sprint All-Star Race - and sits 14th in points without a win - the only single-car team in the top 20. At Daytona, Busch has 12 top 10 finishes in 25 races, with an average finish of 18.4.

Other drivers to watch - Speaking of drivers trying to prove they belong, Danica Patrick won the pole and finished eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500, and crew chief Tony Gibson thinks she'll have another strong run. "Goals for July are the same as they were in February when we went to Daytona: We want to go down there and we want to make a statement," said Gibson in a recent NASCAR teleconference. "We want to try to sit on the pole again, obviously, and this time come up a few spots further up. We felt like we had a shot to win it, ran in the top three or four all day and had a fast car, and it came down to the last lap and kind of got snookered a little bit there at the end. But we felt like we were definitely in contention to win it, so we're going back there with the same mindset, to try to be the fastest car in qualifying and try to close the deal at the end of this thing."

Sources: "Statistical Advance: Analyzing the Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca Cola," NASCAR Media, July 1, 2013

"Storylines: Daytona," NASCAR Media, July 1, 2013

"NASCAR Teleconference with Tony Gibson," NASCAR Media, July 2, 2013

Paula is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in motorsports. She also covers NASCAR at Skirts & Scuffs and Examiner.com.

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